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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tech check

Obviously, these past few weeks and months, members of the media have filed numerous stories about the important role of Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, and other technologies in empowering democratic activists around the world.

This is not fundamentally new. I've been in meetings about the Grawemeyer Award when serious people suggested and discussed the prospect of Twitter (its founders, I suppose) winning the prize because it was such a useful tool during the (failed) Iranian Green uprising. Similarly, a number of former students have contacted me electronically during the past few months to discuss the role of technology in coordinating demonstrations in Egypt and other middle eastern states.

This is a topic I've been thinking, writing, and teaching about for many years. In many respects, I have been a technological optimist and my former students recall the pre-9/11 discussions we had about information technologies and the Chiapas rebellion in Mexico in 1994 (remember Subcomandante Marcos?) and the democratic movement in Indonesia in 1998.

However, it now seems obvious that information technology can be used effectively by non-progressive forces as well. As Chris Lehman wrote recently in The Nation:
plenty of equally unsavory nonstate actors have also adapted to the new networked web—most notoriously in the cellphone-enabled Mumbai terrorist attacks, in which jihadists used Google maps to identify their targets. Mexican crime gangs have used Facebook to compile lists of kidnapping targets, while Indonesians can use a Craigslist-style service to arrange the sale of children’s organs. While Kenya has played host to a vital and influential site called Ushahidi, which helped modernize accurate citizen reporting of violence during the disputed 2007 elections, in that same episode ethnic leaders on both sides of the dispute used text messaging to spread violent attacks on their enemies.
Lehman also discusses the ability of governments to censor the internet and the willingness of western corporations to help them deny access to their populations.

Other pundits are also taking this position. This week, for instance, Harvard's Niall Ferguson's Newsweek piece argues that social networks can "empower the enemies of freedom." "Our most dangerous foes," he writes "are the Islamists who understand how to post fatwas on Facebook, email the holy Quran, and tweet the call to jihad.:

While critics and skeptics like Lehman and Ferguson make some good points, I continue to argue that decentralized information technology is bound to have progressive consequences. Wikileaks demonstrates that it is very difficult even for a powerful national security state to censor sensitive information. Useful technologies are cheap and getting cheaper, making them quite widely available around the globe. Given that participation in open discussion is a recipe for democracy in the public sphere, I do not see how some undesirable users can outweigh the communicative potential of everyone else. Sure, criminals and terrorists can foment hate in their niches of the world wide web, but that's certainly no reason to censor the rest of us. What's Ferguson's take home point?

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